Ask LH: Are There Legal Risks In Grabbing The Old Tech People Throw Out?

Ask LH: Are There Legal Risks In Grabbing The Old Tech People Throw Out?

Dear Lifehacker, Council clear-out days come around with regularity and in apartment-land where I live folk are chucking out old tech all the time: printers, monitors, old PC tower units, HDDs, even working laptops. What are the legalities here? What can you pick up? What must you avoid? What responsibilities would you have if you find folk have not erased data and apps? Thanks, Scavenger

Picture by Michael Coghlan

Dear Scavenger,

Firstly, I should point out that I’m not a lawyer, and that the exact rules about you should and shouldn’t do at a council clean-up will vary from council to council and state to state. That said, there’s a clear and evident principle which all those people you see driving around in utes the weekend before clean-up have embraced: once it’s out on the nature strip, anyone can grab it. (I’ve put stuff out for clean-up and had it taken between trips back to the garage.)

Are those old printers and computer cases worth grabbing, though? Not if you want a junk-free existence. While there will be exceptions, the majority of tech that I’ve seen ditched is clearly in no state to be useful at all. Even if the printer works, getting cartridges could be a challenge. Unless you’re a full-on electronics buff, chances are you won’t find old PC parts useful. I’d advise staying away, but I don’t like clutter.

If someone is foolish enough to throw out a machine or drive without wiping it, the legal questions are a little murky (and would depend on what you choose to do with the data), but the right thing to do is extremely obvious: delete all the information. Yes, it might be tempting to contact the owner (if that information is clear) and point out their error. However, as far as that person is concerned, their machine is on its way to the tip. Even assuming you have found a new use for it, the data should stay dumped.

A final thought: disposing of your electronics via a council clean-up isn’t ideal, since if someone else doesn’t claim it will end up in landfill rather than being recycled. If your council does operate separate collection for electronics at the local tip, try and do that instead.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • i know where I live, that once the items are placed on the nature strip in front of the residence, it automatically becomes council property which usually has contractors come and collect the refuse. As part of the agreements the contractors are allowed to pick out the more valuable pieces to sell off for scrap or other uses that generates profit for them. This allows the councils to save on the cost of picking up the hard rubbish.

    • I think this is the case everywhere.
      Having said that, I’ve pulled a very nice set of speakers and solid speaker stands off the side of the road.. They were so good I sat there for 15 minutes waiting to see if the owner was in the process of moving and just setting stuff out on the road for their partner to load into the car for the next trip!
      They’re my main speakers in my house. I had to replace one driver. The speaker stands alone would cost hundreds new.
      I recently grabbed an old P4 desktop, still working and not wiped. Going to make it a shed PC for streaming music out there.
      And I’ve nabbed a few old vacuum cleaners to use out in the shed until they completely die.

    • Not quite Marty.
      It doesnt just become council property, it is still your property.
      If someone else wants to take something you have put out then they need to ask for your permission. You say its fine for them to take it, then the council cant complain.
      Personally, Id prefer all the stuff I put out to be taken by other people.

        • So last council cleanup the wife puts out a broken plant pot. Some dude rocks up, takes a look and asks her if she’s got any others that aren’t broken.


  • There is also a question of legality in taking anything- councils get annoyed when there’s no good stuff left for them to make money on to recoup the costs of sending out a team to pick up the rubbish. If it’s just a “let’s dump this on the kerb” thing then I think you’re more in the clear.

  • i’ve found a heap of cool gear via ‘hard rubbish’ in melbourne & have built many a PC out of trash for my friends.. who cares the legality of the situation; recycling is a + karma experience.

  • I found a nice 67 Monaro dumped on the nature strip a few years back. Fully rebuilt and a fresh paint job. Mind you, I did have to get the locks replaced, and the aftermarket immobiliser was a bit of a pain.

    I couldn’t believe they were throwing it out.

  • For the road side pick up in Perth I only ever see the council dump trucks loading everything into the trucks with bobcats and a few workers, never seen them sorting thought “the good stuff” and have no idea where they would put it? Unless its somthing small.
    And I think it’s actually illegal to take anything from the verge here

    • Most of the suburbs around Perth seem to put things out for their advertised pick up date and the council comes round the week after. I think this may be an effort to cut down on the amount of stuff they have to dispose of – half of it has already been picked up already.

      I almost managed to nab a 5kVA petrol generator the other day that someone had dumped on the verge. The only trouble was it was too big and heavy to lift on my own into the back of my car. By the time I came back with the trailer and extra bodies some other lucky sod had got it. 🙁

      • The Gold Coast council used to report people to the police that took items from the kerb. The council used to collect everything, then sell items that were sellable. They stopped reporting to police after a public backlash. They used the argument – that the residents are putting the items on council property, (the kerbside) so it the items belong to the council.

    • There’s quite a culture of verge collecting around perth. There’s a handy-dandy map of most of the verge collection areas and times

      My current computer, my old desktop, my parents computer, my 42″ tv, my sisters 42″ tv, some of my chairs, my parents outdoor setting…all collected from the verge. Recycling can be fun.

      • Though this was more so enforced to stop people literally throwing rubbish all over the foot paths, nature strips & the road.. Since a lot of people are pigs and have no respect for the community.

  • Folks, DON’T throw your old tech out on the street. It needs to be treated separately as e-waste because it contains toxins, and also because it can be partially or wholly reused, or recycled. Take your old tech to proper e-waste sites, or wait for a local e-waste collection. That’ll stop it going into landfill and the toxins leeching out to pollute our environment.

    Where I live in North Sydney old tech will simply not be collected by the council – they’ll label it as e-waste and just leave it. Hence the thousands of old analog TVs sitting on pavements after clean-up day.

    • ps. Sydney councils are now charging to ‘responsibly dispose of eWaste.’ Alternatively, you can drop any bulky tech from a good height a few times and put the parts in with your regular garbage bin… wait, what about the planet!? This is the new sales pinch designed to suck more money out of you – ‘pay-per-ethic.’ I doubt this is properly disposed of anyway, anyone heard of greenwashing?

  • My local council (Moreland City) recycles e-waste thrown out during hard rubbish collection. Having said that, residents filmed the contractors throwing it in with regular waste. (For regular weekly recycling, we can recycle aerosol cans, pots and plastic bags etc – welcome to the future.).

    Anyway… I removed the hard drives from the two computers I threw out, which went super fast. Hobbyists or identity thieves?

  • Last year I put an old (1983) TV that just died out (that was my parents old TV and my grandparents before that) which I used as a TV in a spare bedroom. 3 weeks later I got a knock on the door and the guy that picked it up wanted me to pay him back for the money he paid to the people that bought the TV.. Apparently he sold this faulty TV at a garage sale (didn’t say how much – don’t know who’ll pay more than a few cents for a 30yo TV even if it was working), and the people that bought it plugged it in, turned it on, and the TV went bang and damaged their cabinet and wall. They went back to him, and he paid them a few hundred for the damage. I told him to go away, it was thrown out for a reason. He said he was going to call his lawyer; never heard anything.

  • Call the cops in the area you plan on scrounging from and see where you stand in regards to legality. Also, knock on the persons door and ASK before you help yourself.

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